Prime opportunity awaits Damian Jones if Warriors don’t re-sign JaVale McGee
Golden State Warriors’ Damian Jones (15) scores in the fourth quarter of their game against the Los Angeles Lakers’ David Nwaba (10) Larry Nance Jr. (7) and Thomas Robinson (15) at Oracle Arena in Oakland, Calif., on Wednesday, April 12, 2017. (Susan Tripp Pollard/Bay Area News Group)
LAS VEGAS — JaVale McGee remains in free agency limbo as the Warrior roster sits at 14. Perhaps no current player is affected by the decision on that final spot more than second-year center Damian Jones.
If Bob Myers works something out with McGee and brings him back for the veteran minimum — which is all the Warriors can offer — then Jones faces a logjam in his quest for playing time.
Zaza Pachulia would likely start at center, McGee would comfortably slide back into his high-energy spurts in the middle of the first and third quarters, while David West returns as the defensive anchor of those units that start the second and fourth quarters. There’s no daylight for Jones. It’s much the same as his rookie year.
But if McGee doesn’t return — and it’s possible the Warriors opt to leave that 15th roster spot blank, saving a chunk of tax money — then opportunity awaits for Jones. Steve Kerr likes his centers to have differing skill sets.
McGee is the high-energy, springy “vertical spacer,” as they like to call him, stretching the defense with transition rim runs and lob dunks. No other current center on the roster mirrors that athleticism, except Jones, a 7-footer who can run and jump and finish with force. McGee’s minutes could conceivably become Jones’ minutes.
“They mention in the meetings that I have an opportunity ahead of me,” Jones said. “Just got to work hard to maximize that.”
Ten days before Jones was drafted two Junes ago, he tore his pectoral muscle working out for the Orlando Magic. It’s what allowed the Warriors to snag him with the 30th overall pick.
But the injury, proceeding surgery and extended recovery put him way behind. He didn’t play in summer league, wasn’t ready for training camp and didn’t even return to practice until November.
Veteran NBA teams like the Warriors rarely have full practices during the season. The schedule is too grueling, the travel is too constant, the off-days are too important.
So Jones was left primarily to his own devices, sculpting an individual workout routine with assistant Ron Adams. The two would work on various things, then Jones would get shipped off to the D-League to put it into action.
“The No. 1 thing I applaud him on during the last season is he’s really developed into a good worker,” Adams said. “Whether it’s the weight room or on the floor, he’s really committed to his routines. He’s motivated to be good.”
Jones’ early results in the D-League weren’t too encouraging. He’d foul a ton, score sporadically, block a couple shots, but the December and January impact was minimal.
But as the experience piled up, as the conditioning returned, as the pec felt fully recovered, as the conversations with Adams, David West and other veterans started to sink in, Jones’ production rose. He was named the D-League player of the month in March, averaging 17.6 points, 7.8 rebounds and more than two blocks per game, while shooting 65 percent in 13 games.
“Every week he seemed to make a good step up,” Adams said.
Santa Cruz was eliminated from the D-League playoffs in early April. Jones returned to the Warriors right before the playoffs. He only played 21 postseason minutes total, all in mop-up time, but two months seated either next to or right behind David West, soaking up the experience, proved quite useful for the rookie.
“He knows everything,” Jones said of West. “He’s like an Encyclopedia.”
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Jones is an extremely bright kid. He was an engineering science major at Vanderbilt. But he arrived in Oakland a bit shy and, in the mosh pit that is an NBA interior, timidness can be a flaw. So it was useful for him to watch Draymond Green mix it up all season, to see David West get right in Tristan Thompson’s face in Game 5 of The Finals. Surrounded by four All-Stars, enforcing is part of the job description for Warrior centers.
“Don’t go to the extreme, but show that aggression, be a man down there,” Jones said. “They play hard, they play tough, they don’t let people push them around.”
Jones has arrived in Las Vegas this week trying to put that experience to use. In the summer league opener, he was pretty impressive. The team drew up an alley-oop for him on the game’s first possession. He dunked a few times, blocked three shots — including a help-side volleyball spike into the first row — and, perhaps most encouragingly, Jones drained a pair of 20-foot jumpers.
“Big guys are shooting jumpers now,” Jones said, adding that he’s not yet ready to stretch it out to 3-point range.
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All the while, Ron Adams watched his pupil intently from a baseline seat, saying he wasn’t interested in the dunks or jumpers, but rather the minor details of Jones’ performance.
A negative: Jones remains a bit jumpy, biting on a couple pump-fakes that either led to a foul or a blow-by drive. A positive: Jones dove down the lane on a third quarter pick-and-roll, caught an overhead pass and, sensing the rotating defender, fluidly rotated a swing pass to his teammate, wide open in the corner. The shot was bricked. But when it’s Klay Thompson instead of a D-Leaguer, that shot’s usually splashing through.
“I’m looking for him to defend, rebound the ball, make good decisions offensively — moving the ball, cutting off the ball, those kinds of things,” Adams said. “The kind of things that will get him minutes next season.”